Monday, August 6, 2007

The Great Exodus of '07

If you were to believe everything you read on hockey blogs and websites this off-season, the sense that the sky is falling over the heads of the NHL and hockey community in general would certainly be palpable. Sentiments like "Why are the big-market teams once again dominating free agency?," "Did we really lose an entire season to develop a CBA this flawed?" and "Is Kevin Lowe mentally deficient?" are common questions pondered by many a hockey writer regarding what is, in their minds, the rapidly declining state of the game.

So if these issues are being tossed out there as signs of the hockey armageddon, the exodus of mid-level and lower-tier talent to Russia has the potential to significantly hurt the league. We've all heard of Alexei Yashin's departure by now, but several other players have either signed or are considering signing with a Russian Super League team next season. Randy Robitaille, Oleg Saprykin, Jamie McLennan, Jussi Markkanen and Dmitry Afanasenkov have already broadcasted their intent to play in Russia next year, while Danny Markov and Oleg Tverdovsky are considering their options, both of whom are reportedly close to returning to their native Russia.

While it's true that Saprykin probably wasn't going to win any Hart Trophies and there likely weren't any Vezinas in Markkanen's future, many prognosticators predicted that the CBA would take a toll on the lower-tier and some middle-level players like the Robitailles, Saprykins and Afanaseknovs of the league. While you could make the argument that these players (all of whom except Robitaille, McLennan and Markkanen are Russian) wanted to return to their homeland, it was reported that Saprykin in particular and likely all other players would make more money in tax-free Russia than playing for a North American NHL team. The situation with the goaltenders Markannen and McLennan is unique as there is a dwindling amount of spots open on NHL teams for journeymen backups.

These players certainly aren't the bread and butter of NHL teams, but are still vital cogs in third- and fourth-line roles and their losses are detrimental to the quality of the league as a whole, as their spots will likely be filled by league-minimum, low-skill level players. While the NHL surely won't be giving up its title as the greatest hockey league in the world in the forseeable future as superstar Russians like Alex Ovechkin, Ilya Kovalchuk and Pavel Datsyuk will be continue to be paid far more in North America than they could ever dream of being compensated in Russia, losing players to European establishments as a result of lack of compensation due to a CBA that essentially stipulates the overpayment of higher-level players (think the Flyers couldn't have afforded to re-up Afanasenkov with the $2 million more they paid Scott Hartnell than what a player of his numbers actually deserves?), this could present (yet another) grave problem for the league sometime in the future.

UPDATE Hours after I post this, it seems Boston Bruins forward Stanislav Chistov is contemplating playing in Russia (story found via Kukla) as well, most likely for the Mettalurg Magnitogorsk who he played for during the lockout.

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